About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

23 April 2010

Do Not Go To Your Left

When author and TV commentator Roger Rosenblatt graced us with his presence at The Masters Forum several years ago, he gave us this advice on how to live a more successful life:
"Do not go to your left."
He explained that going to your left is a basketball term for working on a weakness; a right-handed player who learns to dribble and shoot from the left side will be more effective on the court. And while this is great for basketball, he said, people who try to compensate for weaknesses in life usually get weaker.

Roger's words could easily be a one-off title for the book - Now, Discover Your Strengths - by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, or even a folksy mission statement for a human resources department. In other words, forget about identifying and correcting weaknesses and focus on building up strengths instead.

There a many ways to discover your strengths. One is to buy Gallup's book - Strengths Finder 2.0 - by Tom Rath. There is a code tucked away inside each book; you can use it to go online and complete a questionnaire that will point to your greatest strengths.

Another approach is to meet face-to-face with four or five people you know and trust, and ask them for feedback on your strengths. The benefit is you get to see yourself as others see you - which isn't always the way you see yourself. You can also ask questions to clarify things you don't understand.

  • Pick four or five people who have seen you in action and experienced your behavior over a reasonable (a few months) amount of time.
  • Meet with each of them individually, and ask what they value most about you. Listen. Ask questions to clarify. Take notes.
  • Upon completion of the meetings, sift through your feedback and list the top three things they said they value most about you - your strengths.
  • Meet with each of them again to share your findings and get their response. Ask one or more of them if they would be willing to help you further develop these strengths.
"Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig." - Robert Heinlein
"Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not commit adultery. Don't eat pork. I'm sorry. What was that last one? Don't eat pork. God has spoken. Is that the Word of God, or is that pigs trying to outsmart everybody?" - Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show
“There is a Japanese proverb that literally goes ‘Raise the sail with your stronger hand,’ meaning you must go after the opportunities that arise in life that you are best equipped to do.” - Soichiro Honda

16 April 2010

The Way of WOLF

I ran into my friend Julie Gilbert at a special program we conducted recently and found out that she has left Best Buy in order to share her ideas on how organizations can create high-performing, innovative, and engaging cultures that tap into the energy and talent of all employees. Her new company is WOLF Means Business.

Julie appeared in our 2007 Masters Forum series to tell the story of how and why she created Best Buy's Women's Leadership Forum - the WOLF program - that has reshaped the company's innovation culture and processes, new products and services, practices in its stores, personnel practices, leadership development, and service to communities.

The WOLF story is long and involved. I'll try to hit the high spots as I summarize it here.

When CEO Brad Anderson introduced her to our audience that day, he began by saying that when he assumed leadership at Best Buy:
"The most critical part of what I wanted to do was to deliver customer-centricity; to change the whole identity of this massive corporation from a product-centered company to a customer-and customer-solutions-centered company."
At its core, WOLF is an outgrowth of Julie's sense that the first - and most important - thing Best Buy needed to do to achieve Brad's goal was revamp its definition of customer. The company had historically considered its customers to be white males between the ages of 16 and 35. This flew right into the face of the fact that women influenced 89 percent of all the money spent on consumer electronics. She asked:
"If women are now dominating the spending, in an industry that was built, like most other industries, as a boys' toy store, how does that impact the future of the company if we don't change?"
Change came slowly, but surely. Early on - before WOLF came into being - when she visited stores and asked sales personnel to demonstrate their methods, she noticed that virtually all attention was focused on male customers and very little on women. Later - after WOLF was established - when sales personnel learned to focus on female customers and talk about things that women generally cared more about than men - how careful the installers are not to make a mess in the house, for example, or how wires can be hidden from view in an installed unit - overall sales jumped. In Julie's words:
"When they looked her in the eye, when they talked about things she cared about, in every single test we did at Best Buy the women would for no apparent reason upgrade products, add on additional services, and aggressively try to move up the installation date."
Did it translate to the bottom line? In the 18 months leading up to September, 2007, Best Buy had increased its market share among women by more than two percent. This resulted in additional sales of $3.6 billion.

The fact that the WOLF program has delivered such stunning sales increases for Best Buy is a remarkable story. Even more fascinating, though, is the story of how it came into being.

It starts small. Julie had noticed that when she would visit stores with her Best Buy partner - a man - the male staff would greet him heartily, but virtually ignore her. The female staff, on the other hand, would usually greet her warmly. One day, she asked a woman at one of the stores why she thought this was happening. The woman began by pouring out her story of being ignored, of having men receive credit for her ideas, of being bypassed for promotion, and of generally not fitting in the company; she ended by talking about Julie:
"We never see a woman executive. When we see you walk through the door, and we know the success you have had at Best Buy, we know that if we keep working hard we're going to become you."
Julie went home that night and had a dream, in which she was a small girl back in the South Dakota town where she grew up, the moon was full, and she heard the howling of animals.
"What came to me in this dream is they're stray wolves. They're saying, 'I'm out here. I'm out here, too. Hey, I'm out here, too!' They're people who do not feel like they fit, who do not feel like they have voices, who want to be heard. And they want to be respected like everyone else."
She went on to say that unlike most humans, wolves care for stray wolves, in part as a way to insure that they have genetic diversity. She said she also realized that eye contact has been lost in our modern society, and there is a distinctive quality to the eyes of the wolf.
"They are so focused. They are looking you right in the eye, and there could be explosions and big things happening all around you and they don't blink. They are intense, they are focused, and they are authentic."
She said:
"As I was waking up out of this dream, this bolt of lightning hit me again and it said, 'Julie, if not you, who is going to do this?' At that moment, in my bed at two in the morning in December, I grabbed my laptop and started creating WOLF."
The WOLF program, Julie said, has three pillars:
"The first is commitment. Commitment to each other, to innovation in the business, and to all stray wolves who need our help. The second is networking: building a strategic diverse network by connecting with people who can help us achieve our goals and do our jobs better every day. The third is give back: becoming better leaders by giving back to the company and charitable organizations impacting the lives of women."
She said she included the give back component in part because the best leaders she had known were people who would offer their time and attention to someone who is struggling. Brad Anderson highlighted this notion in introducing Julie. He said he had gone to a Lutheran seminary right after college, but had left when a professor told him:
"If you’ve got one good sermon in you, you're incredibly lucky."
Anderson said:
"I only very late in life discovered I had a sermon, and I was amazed to find I did."
He followed by saying that after observing Julie's work at Best Buy, he recognized its profound significance:
"You have this incredible joy of watching people take their talents into the world and play those talents out. The WOLF program is designed to find a way to help people who don't know what their sermon is or their story is, and don't know how to find it and tell it, to find it and tell it."
Julie puts it in slightly different terms:
"As leaders our job is to inspire others to believe in themselves and become someone they never thought possible. I wanted Best Buy to be the place - if you have a daughter who's in fifth grade, you're already talking to her about going to Best Buy to work. The reason you are is that it has the most amazing opportunities, it's going to build your leadership skills, it's going to give you opportunities you couldn't get anywhere else and faster than anywhere else. You could be leading a global business anywhere in the world. And you could follow your passion."
The bottom line? At Best Buy, the number of female job applicants in areas where there are WOLF Packs has increased by 37 percent. There are 40 percent more female general managers, and the number of female district managers (managing between eight and 15 stores) has been increased threefold. The turnover of female employees has also decreased dramatically. According to Julie:
"We were losing a female manager every 48 hours inside of Best Buy. In part as a result of WOLF, turnover among women at Best Buy in areas where there are Packs was reduced by 5.7 percent between February 2006 and February 2007. The savings from the decreased turnover alone have been enough to pay for the whole WOLF program."
A final point about WOLF. Men are also allowed to join WOLF packs, and many have. The barrier to entry is steep, however. They have to apply, write an essay, pass an interview with panel of women in the Pack, and go into the field and prove their worth. As a result, Julie said:
"It has become a cool thing at Best Buy to be an Alpha Male WOLF."
There is much more to be said about the WOLF program itself, but I want to stop here and present the reasons why I think it has been so successful. As you will see, much of my thinking in this regard has been shaped by my study of the works of Joseph Campbell.

First, the story of WOLF is not the story of a large consulting firm coming into Best Buy with a cookie cutter culture change program. It is - instead - the story of Julie's personal journey to make her life more meaningful by enriching the lives of those around her. In almost all ways it is the powerful story of the mythical hero's journey of self-discovery, self-transcendence, one's role in society, and the relationship between the two. It's also a journey she was prepared to take. In the words of Joseph Campbell:
"The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it's really a manifestation of his character. It's amusing the way in which the landscape and conditions of the environment match the readiness of the hero. The adventure that he is ready for is the one that he gets. The adventure evoked a quality of his character that he didn't know he possessed."
Second, WOLF was a creation of the spirit, not of the mind. This gave her a lens to look at the world around her from a very different angle. Campbell again:
"We all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes? If the person doesn't listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you're going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life and it's not the one the body's interested in at all. And the world's full of people who have stopped listening to themselves."
Third, she was not attached to specific outcomes. She was willing to make sense of things as she went along. And, once she did, she simply did what she intuitively felt was right. Campbell says:
"I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about."
Fourth, while there was no obvious path to follow at the outset, she uncovered one while walking. In Campbell's words:
"If you follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."
Fifth, she was inclusive and non-hierarchical. She invited everyone - with the caveat that men had to go through a formal initiation process - to walk with her as an equal partner. The sense of this is best stated by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
"If we think we monopolize the truth and we still organize a dialogue, it is not authentic. We have to believe that by engaging in a dialogue with the other person, we have the possibility of making a change within ourselves, that we can become deeper. Dialogue is not a means for assimilation in the sense that one side expands and incorporates the other into its 'self'. Dialogue must be practiced on the basis of 'non-self.' We have to allow what is good, beautiful, and meaningful in others to transform us."
Finally, she was intrinsically motivated to do what she did. In other words, she did it for the pure joy of doing it - nothing more, nothing less. Campbell:
"The only question in life is whether or not you are going to answer a hearty 'YES!' to your adventure."
I purposely looked through the lens of Joseph Campbell's work to comment on Julie's success. This is because the language of business, or corporate-speak, is nowhere near up to the task. What Julie did - and she couldn't have done it without Brad Anderson's support - couldn't have been done by worshiping at the alter of typical business norms and practices; it could only have been accomplished by taking a higher road - a living road best described by poets, philosophers, artists, and maybe even mystics. I wish her good luck and God's speed in her journey ahead.

  • What stood out in Julie's story?
  • What meaning does it have for you?
  • What questions are emerging?
  • Where are the sharp edges?
And this is the law of the wild
As true and as blue as the sky
And the wolf that keeps it will prosper
But the wolf that breaks it will die.
Like the vine that circles the tree trunk
This law runneth forward and back
The strength of the pack is the wolf
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.
- Rudyard Kipling
"The passion in our nature urges a human being to choose 'the one precious thing,' and urges him to pay for it through poverty, conflict, deprivation, labor, and endurance of anger from rejected divinities. It is the warrior that enables the human being to decide to become a musician only, or a poet only, or a doctor only, or a hermit only, or a painter only. It is the lover in a man or woman who loves the one precious thing, and tells him what it is; but it is the warrior in Rembrandt or Mirabai who agrees to endure the suffering the choice entails." - Robert Bly, Iron John
"The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain." - Colin Wilson
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'" - Jack Kerouac
"Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded." - Charlotte Bronte, Preface to the Second Edition of Jane Eyre
"Once individuals link together they become something different. Relationships change us, reveal us, evoke more from us. Only when we join with others do our gifts become visible, even to ourselves." - Margaret Wheatley
"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds." - Edward Abbey

09 April 2010

The Drunkard Disciple

In a recent Warrior of the Light newsletter Paulo Coehlo, author of The Alchemist, tells the following story which is titled The Drunkard Disciple:
A Zen master had hundreds of disciples. They all prayed at the right time, except one, who was always drunk.

The master was growing old. Some of the more virtuous pupils began to wonder who would be the new leader of the group, the one who would receive the important secrets of the Tradition.

On the eve of his death, however, the master called the drunkard disciple and revealed the hidden secrets to him.

A veritable revolt broke out among the others.

"How shameful!" they cried in the streets, "We have sacrificed ourselves for the wrong master, one who can’t see our qualities."

Hearing the commotion outside, the dying master remarked, "I had to pass on these secrets to a man that I knew well. All my pupils are very virtuous, and showed only their good qualities. That is dangerous, for virtue often serves to hide vanity, pride and intolerance. That is why I chose the only disciple whom I know really well, since I can see his defect: drunkenness."
Please don't jump to the conclusion that this is a story about whether you can trust "drunkards" or not; that's a whole different conversation. This is a story that asks the question, "How can I trust you, if I don't really know you?" And that question begs another, "How can you come to really know another person?"

The answer to the first question is "You can't." The answer to the second is you can never really know another person - not even those closest to you - but you can come to know most of the people in your life well enough to know whether you can trust them or not.

The notion that it’s important to be able to build trust with others is one of the latest “silver bullets” ricocheting off the walls of corporate America. As a result, books on trust, seminars on trust, and consultants that say they can help a company create a high trust culture in ten easy steps are in high demand. This is hogwash!

There is no formula or set of skills that you can master to help you build trust with others. Trust building is a raw, organic process that consists of spending whatever time it takes to tell our stories to others and listen to theirs. And, I don’t just mean stories that flesh out our resumes. I mean stories that tell where we came from, and where we dream of ending up; stories that shed light on the paths we’ve traveled - triumphs and tragedies alike; stories that reveal not only what’s on our mind but also what’s in our heart.

Then, at the end of the storytelling, or when we’ve gotten to know each other from as many different angles as possible, we get to decide whether we trust each other or not. And, if we’ve been really truthful with each other, a genuine trust relationship is almost always the result.

  • What is trust?
  • How is it created?
  • In what, or whom, do you trust?
  • How freely do you extend trust to others?
  • How can others earn your trust?
  • How do you react if someone violates your trust?
  • Will you ever be able to trust that person again? Why or why not?
"Let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Freedom is about being vulnerable to one another, realizing that our ability to connect is more important than feeling secure, in control and alone." - Eve Ensler
"If you are to judge a man, you must know his secret thoughts, sorrows, and feelings; to know merely the outward events of a man’s life would only serve to make a chronological table — a fool’s notion of history." - HonorĂ© de Balzac
"Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act—it does not matter whom—and we will survive." - Barry Lopez - Eden Is a Conversation (closing remarks at Quest for Global Healing, Ubud, Bali, Portland Magazine Autumn, 2006)
"We are not as near each other as we would like to imagine. Words create the bridges between us. Without them we would be lost islands. Affection, recognition and understanding travel across these fragile bridges and enable us to discover each other and awaken friendship and intimacy. Words are never just words. The range and depth of a person's soul is inevitably revealed in the quality of words she uses. When chosen with reverence and care, words not only describe what they say but also suggest what can never be said." - John O'Donohue, Beauty

02 April 2010

The Sorcerer's Way to Innovation

The Naskapi Indians live in small, nomadic bands on the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. The mainstay of their life is caribou hunting. In warm weather months, large numbers of caribou migrate through Naskapi lands. The animals travel at a very fast pace - covering up to forty miles a day - over terrain that humans can hardly traverse. The key to successful hunting during this time is the anticipation of the migration route, because the hunters have no hope of getting close enough to even see the caribou herds otherwise.

The bitter cold of winter changes everything, and calls for a very different approach to the hunt. First, there are fewer caribou. Second, they are dispersed more widely. Third, they go from sprinting across the tundra to settling in the woods. As a result, the Naskapi have to figure out where the herd might be each day instead of trying to head them off at the pass.

To do this, they use a shamanistic practice - scapulamancy - that has been passed down from one generation of Naskapi to the next. Here's how it works. Each night during the hunting season, a Naskapi shaman holds the shoulder bone of a long-dead caribou over a fire until burnt spots and cracks appear. When they do, the shaman reads the results and tells the hunting party where to go to find caribou the next day.

The idea you can find caribou by following cracks in a charred shoulder blade seems silly to those living in the developed world. Yet, the Naskapi have survived in their inhospitable surroundings by following this ritual. Why does their magic work? For possible answers, we turn to a recent book on strategy - Competing on the Edge - by Shona L. Brown and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt:
"The rituals provide novelty. First, they introduce an element of randomness into the inevitably patterned actions by which the hunters’ tactics become too predictable to the hunted and too locked into a set pattern. They help the Naskapi avoid over hunting, what we would call success-induced failure. Second, by following these random patterns, the Naskapi are much more likely to explore new hunting grounds that can yield new ways to hunt caribou and perhaps even new game."
They go on to point out that Naskapi magic holds a lesson for business:
"Novelty and even randomness (technically termed mutation) are critical to success, especially in times of rapid and unpredictable change. Without novelty and randomness, hunters will be slow to spot change and will uncover few opportunities to find new game or to hunt the old game in new ways. Novelty breaks the frame of the past. The same is true of managers who become stuck in routines and trapped by tightly configured business models. Whereas the Naskapi create this freshness by following random cracks in charred caribou bones, contemporary managers can do so by pursuing new opportunities in unexpected and possibly even random ways."
There are many ways to intentionally use random selection to generate novelty. One to try comes from Bob Sutton, Stanford University professor and author of Weird Ideas That Work. In a recent visit to The Masters Forum, he said:
"Reactivity, a software company I advise, holds regular brainstorming sessions where employees talk about ideas for new technologies, products, and companies. After holding a few of these sessions, a couple of the software designers were becoming concerned that the ideas discussed were getting too narrow. So they invented a random selection process. Attendees at the sessions were given index cards and told to jot down on each a technology (one color of cards) or an industry (a second color). Random pairings were then created by picking a card from each deck, and the group brainstormed for five minutes on the possibilities of each pair. The ideas deemed most promising became homework for several small sub-groups, which reported what they'd learned at the next meeting. For example, the pairing of shipbuilding and risk management inspired some promising ideas about doing dynamic risk management in real time, a method that could be quite valuable for helping companies price insurance of all kinds, not just for ships. As for the efficacy of the process, one of the designers said 'It helped get us out of the rut we were in.'"
  • Are you superstitious? How so?
  • Do you believe it is possible to divine the future? Explain.
  • Are you familiar with the beliefs of spiritual traditions other than your own? Is there one in particular that interests you?
  • If you learn about something that does not mesh with your belief system, what do you do?
  • What are the ways in which your company is predictable to its competitors?
  • How can you use novelty and randomness to break out of your traditions or set ways of operating?
"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"It seems safe to assume that human beings require a functional equivalent to a table of random numbers if they are to avoid unwitting regularities in their behavior, which can be utilized by adversaries." - O.K. Moore, Divination: A New Perspective, American Anthropologist 59, 1957
"I am enthusiastic over humanity's extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat may come along and make a fortuitous life preserver. This is not to say, though, that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday's fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem." - R. Buckminster Fuller
"In bullfighting there is a term called ‘querencia.’ The querencia is the spot in the ring to which the bull returns. Each bull has a different querencia, but as the bullfight continues, and the animal becomes more threatened, it returns more and more often to his spot. As he returns to his querencia, he becomes more predictable. And so, in the end, the matador is able to kill the bull because instead of trying something new, the bull returns to what is familiar. His comfort zone." - Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO